It occurred to me recently that if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I look like a nerdy, emaciated version of Mark Zuckerberg, I'd be as wealthy as Mark Zuckerberg. It also occurred to me that fans of The Camelot Shadow might enjoy prequel short, The Strange Task Before Me: Being an Excerpt from the Journal of William J. Upton, and that those who have not yet, to paraphrase the poorly chosen title of this post, penetrated their lowermost digits into the dampness of my literary lake might enjoy a preview to determine whether they would be willing to submerge themselves completely into the nethers of my bookish ocean.
And with that, I've utterly obliterated the desire of everyone everywhere to read anything I've ever written. Nevertheless (or perhaps netherstheless), I press on.
To that end, then, please enjoy what follows. If you're interested in more, I encourage you to check it out on Amazon or, if you prefer a different format, to send me a message and I'll make sure to get you squared away (and you don't even have to engage with my literary nethers, I promise).
Read on, dear friends.
The Strange Task Before Me
My friend Alfie tells me that keeping a diary is all the rage in these early years of the reign of Queen Victoria, our revered paragon of moral virtue. Noble lords and shopkeepers alike are caught up in the frenzy, and so I feel compelled to set down certain facts to ensure that when they are entered into the historical record, as they undoubtedly will be, given the likelihood of my future eminence, I am portrayed in the most positive possible light. Of course, the good Lord Alfred Fitzwilliam also suggests that an intimation of intimacy directed toward a serving girl one has only just met when she placed before him a savory plate of mutton is inappropriate, and so I’m not entirely convinced of the veracity or wisdom of his counsel.
Two sentences into my inaugural entry, one written in secret but, like all others of its ilk, ultimately for the purpose of public consumption, and I’ve already suggested that I’m a lascivious cad. It’s not far from the truth, I suppose, at least insofar as my actions are considered, but it’s as representative of who I am at heart as I suspect the totality of this “private” document will be.
But, I didn’t purchase this beautiful calfskin-bound volume (from my own shop, naturally, albeit at a handsome discount extended to me by the handsome owner) to set down my innermost thoughts with respect to the scandalous (and, I confess, often unfulfilling) manner in which I behave toward the fair sex, as I find deep self-examination as comfortable and appealing as the prospect of having my leg amputated in an army field hospital. Rather, unlike the self-absorbed navel gazers or gluttonous gourmands intent on tracking their daily food intake who tend to purchase these volumes from my shop, I hope to use it with purpose. This, of course, presumes I have something worthwhile to record.
Which, at the moment, I do not. And so, surcease.
It would seem that interesting events in one’s life occur in inverse proportion to one’s desire to record them in one’s diary. One week in, the most notable thing that has happened is that I managed to snag a pair of trousers on a rather pernicious nail jutting from the door of the shop, resulting in the ruination of said trousers and a rather vigorous pounding of the offending piece of metal with the business end of a hammer.
I emerged scarred from the encounter, certainly, but victorious, and unbroken. Let us see what the next week shall bring…
I begin to question whether my diary is responsible for the recent lack of notable anecdotes in my life, or whether my life has ever been devoid of noteworthy events, and it only seemed to be filled with them because I wasn’t actually counting the days between the rare occurrences of interest. Regardless, last week’s incident with the nail begins to grow more and more epic in the retelling, having nothing to displace its pride of narrative place in my life since it transpired.
The nail will soon be a harpoon, if not a lance, by the end of the summer.
Today marks two years since Father’s passing. I feel as though I should commemorate the occasion, but I could think of no suitable way to do so other than to open the shop as normal and down an extra Scotch at the public house. Father would have appreciated that tribute, I don’t doubt, and would have been uncomfortable with anything more elaborate.
I wonder what Mother would want me to do to mark the occasion of her passing? Not that I can do so on the day it happened, of course—Father was always vague about the precise date she left us as well as the circumstances. Was it the day I was born? The following day? Weeks later? Perhaps I should simply mark her death the day on my birthday. I suppose the celebration would be the same—imbibing an ungentlemanly amount of liquor—though perhaps I’d refrain from spending the evening in the company of a member of the fair sex. I suspect Mother would disapprove.
Though, how would I know, having never met the woman? Or, at least, having not known her at an age at which I was capable of forming memories…
I decided to let some time pass after the last entry’s morbid turn. It turns out this diary writing is powerfully affecting.
I’m not entirely sure I like it.
I had intended to let more time lapse before making another entry. Truth be told—though I can think of few occasions when truth is a less welcome visitor than when one is conversing solely with one’s self—I had considered giving up the enterprise entirely, but, at last, an incident worthy of putting quill to page has occurred!
It’s not unusual for patrons of our shop—I say “our” out of habit still, and suspect I always will, for as long as the “Upton & Son, Booksellers” sign hangs outside the door—to request rare volumes that can prove challenging to acquire. Locke, Defoe, Swift…original copies of their works, and those of other luminaries, are constantly sought after, and the market for them can be quite cutthroat when one considers the object of obsession is nothing more than pages of script bound together whose content can be found in a similar—and cheaper—form without much difficulty for men of means. We live, however, in an age of words, when knowledge is power and the sharp, incisive cut of a well-turned phrase can do more damage than a well-honed sabre. It is, by and large, a glorious time to be alive, and a particularly propitious time to be in the business of selling the board-and-paper packages in which knowledge is compiled and presented.
Today, however, I received a most unusual request, and from a purchaser more unusual still. It has not, historically, been the purview of Upton (or son) to deal in esoteric texts, though I can’t say with certainty that Father never sought out such tomes for clients. Still, we don’t habitually stock any works by the alchemists of yore—you’ll find no Hermes Trismegistus on our shelves (nor anyone else’s for that matter, I suppose, in part because spelling it is a sufficiently difficult chore, let alone finding the books)—and we tend to focus instead on English novelists, history, and philosophers, with the occasional foray into more Continental fare for those of a particular bent.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the bell rang in my shop and a cloaked and hooded man entered, seeking something out of the ordinary. I called out, as I habitually do when a patron enters, “Can I help you, sir?” and crouched a bit in an attempt to peer beneath his hood, my polite way of suggesting that our transaction might be more sociable if I could see his face. He waited in silence for a moment before turning and locking the door, and though I couldn’t see his eyes, I felt as though he were taking my measure. Apparently, I passed his test, for he lowered his hood and stalked—to call this walking would be akin to saying that a panther walked its prey—to the counter.
He was older, but not necessarily old, and bearded—bordering on unkempt, but not quite untamed—and possessed of such furrows in his forehead that a plow horse might have found a home there.
(I see why the keeping of a diary might inspire a man to have a greater degree of confidence in his writing ability than the words on the page might suggest. As I wrote that sentence, it seemed brilliant, but upon reflection, it’s a rubbish metaphor. I still feel I could write circles around the Brontes, though, regardless of how much Alfred fawns over them.)
He placed both hands on the counter and leaned toward me. He spoke softly, but his voice was so deep that, even at a quiet volume, its resonance was obvious. The man sought a rare manuscript by J--- D--, one that I had never even heard of, and most certainly did not have stocked in the shop.
Though this is intended to remain a private account, I cannot discount the possibility of it being found in the unlikely and unfortunate event of something happening to me, and so I will refrain from completely incriminating myself in writing by naming the author of this particular work, the possession of which might be frowned on by certain authorities. Contrary to the assertion of many, particularly of the gentle sex, I am, in fact, smarter than I appear. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to him, and the work my client desired to purchase, as “JD” from here on.
He did not express surprise that I didn’t have the book; in fact, he seemed sure that I wouldn’t. Rather, his intent was to engage me to act as his proxy in acquiring it, a task complicated by the fact that most of my usual resources would be unlikely to lead me to it.
The man declined to share his name when I offered mine—suspicious, certainly, but not the first time that’s happened, though usually it’s when clients are interested in certain banned erotic texts that they tend to conceal their identities. He minced no words, which I appreciated, particularly as the fact that he had locked the door upon arriving had made me uneasy and I wished to bring the interview to a close as quickly as possible. Of course, being an Upton, resisting a chance to bargain is akin to turning down a drink, so I figured I could let the conversation play out at least a little bit longer when the talk turned to figures.
I am, I will note with pride—too much pride, perhaps, for I’m not entirely sure this is an admirable quality outside of the male population of Great Britain—expert at concealing my emotions, particularly with respect to money, which has, I note again with some pride, made me particularly adept when it comes to negotiating fees for my services. Thus it was discomfiting, albeit not disappointingly so, when the man suggested a figure that not only made my eyes bulge, but caused me to emit a gasp of surprise as well. (Coolly played, William.)
Having neither cause nor desire to counter his absurdly generous offer, I simply bowed and indicated that I was at the gentleman’s service. I inquired as to how I might contact him to provide updates on my search—assuming a book is not exceedingly rare, I can usually procure it within a couple of weeks, or a month at most, but for a request like this, I anticipated many months, if not longer, before I might find what my mysterious client sought.
Much to my surprise and dismay, however, my client indicated that I had but four days to get him the book, and it was not issued in the form of a request, nor was it suggested in the naïve tones of a man who has no understanding of what is involved in acquiring just such a rare tome.
I balked. I made a jest to suggest that I would need powerful magic indeed if I were to be able to fulfill his request in such short order. He did not laugh. Rather, he sought to flatter me by telling me that his sources (unnamed, I note) suggested there were few booksellers better suited to the task than I and then made it clear that I had little choice in the matter. I bristled at his implied threat, but, I shame-facedly confess here, within the safety of my diary, that I quailed when the man stared me down. The best I could do was meekly reply that I would only be able to fulfill the terms of the arrangement if the book were in London, for I’d have no time to make contact with sellers in other markets. The man smiled, or, at least, allowed his face to contort into something that at least resembled an expression of mirth, the first such display of humanity I’d seen from him. “You will find the tome within or near London, Mr. Upton,” he said in that rough baritone. “And I will return for it in exactly four days.”
With that, he left the shop, and I’ve been standing at my desk scribbling this bloody diary entry ever since, rather than taking action to find the book.
A shot of Scotch for courage, another for luck, and one more for the simple reason that it tastes delicious, and I am off on my quest!